Dacera case: Media echo, fail to check sloppy police work
IT HAD all the elements of the sensational. A young flight attendant had been found unconscious in a posh Makati hotel room on New Year’s Day. She was brought to the Makati Medical Center by her friends who were staying with her in the hotel. But Christine Dacera was declared dead on arrival.
The event did not involve any public figures — not the possible victim of foul play, not the potential witnesses and not the possible suspects. Privacy issues should have warned the media to exercise caution in reporting on the subject, considering the great harm often wrought by publicity on private lives. But the police provided journalists with a sensational tale of rape and homicide—and they accepted it without question.
On January 3, two days after Dacera died, the Makati City police broke the news to the media. Chief Harold Depositar, referring to the initial police investigation, did not even suggest the possibility of foul play.
On January 4, TV and online news reported the death as a crime, with Depositar now saying that Dacera had been raped and killed. He said the police based that conclusion on the “lacerations and sperm” found in Dacera’s genitalia and that their suspicion of “gang rape” was based on the bruises and scratches on her limbs. But he did not present any documents nor any witness’ testimony to support his statements. On the same day, PNP Chief Debold Sinas declared the case “solved,” and announced that three suspects had been detained.
On January 5, Cignal TV’s The Chiefs interviewed via video NCRPO Chief Vicente Danao, Jr., who criticized the “premature” revelations by the PNP. He contradicted Sinas’ claim that the case was solved, because it was too early to conclude that a crime had caused Dacera’s death.
Also on January 5, a medico-legal report from the PNP circulated on social media. It identified the cause of death as a “ruptured aortic aneurysm” with no mention of any evidence of rape. Online news picked up these findings with the rest of mainstream media following it up the next day.
On January 6, the Makati City Prosecutor’s Office ordered the release of the three suspects due to insufficient evidence, and referred the case back to the Makati police for further investigation.
If the police were hasty, the media were just as guilty in failing to review the accounts they were given from the start and accepting the conclusions of the police without verification. The conclusion that the crimes of rape and homicide had been committed depends on medico-legal findings; experienced journalists should have asked for these before reporting police statements. But for three days, the news reports merely echoed what the police were saying: that a heinous crime took place, and that persons of interest the police had identified were to blame.
The media followed the false lead to pick up information everywhere they could — Dacera’s family, her friends, the hotel management — despite changes in the official narrative.
CMFR monitored the coverage of four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas and CNN Philippines’ News Night), three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Bulletin, Philippine Star), the online counterparts of these channels and newspapers, and independent news sites from January 3 to 15.
The crucial lapse in coverage was at the very start when reporters failed to question Depositar’s tagging of the incident as a rape-slay case. Journalists readily accepted it without asking for the post-mortem forensic findings.
Starting off on that false note, media coverage proceeded to make a spectacle out of the case, with little sensitivity to its the impact on Dacera’s family. TV news milked the emotional state of the family for all it was worth: Dacera’s mother’s crying for Duterte’s help and insisting that her daughter had been raped, as well as footage of Dacera’s burial in General Santos City with policemen serving as pallbearers.
Newscasts also aired CCTV footage showing Dacera in the hotel’s hallway hours before her death, in one instance casually kissing a man at the party — a clip which indicated nothing about Dacera and the man, and adding nothing to validate the claim that the party involved a crime.
TV news featured interviews with a few friends of the deceased who had planned to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. They revealed to the media that they were gay, as were the other men in the party, and therefore could not have done what they were being accused of.
The media frenzy included interviews with politicians. Some journalists thought it relevant to report ACT-CIS Representative Eric Go Yap’s and Senator Manny Pacquiao’s offers of a reward for anyone with information about the “suspects” still at large; with Pacquiao again using what he insisted was another heinous crime as a compelling reason for restoring the death penalty.
The capacity for forensic investigation has never been a strong suit of the PNP, and media should be skeptical about any information on cause of death without reference to autopsy reports. In this case, reporters did not even have witness accounts to corroborate police claims.
After the medico-legal report circulated on social media, news organizations featured separate interviews with Dr. Raquel Fortun. The country’s foremost forensic pathologist questioned the findings of the report, pointing out such missing details as any indication of toxin presence in Dacera’s blood and urine. She said that based on the report, she could not go with the conclusion that Dacera had been raped. Fortun also criticized the PNP for conducting the autopsy after the body had been embalmed.
On January 6, DOJ secretary Menardo Guevarra told the media that the NBI would assist in the investigation by conducting their own autopsy, which was done by January 9, one day before Dacera’s burial.
Adding further to the confusion, the NBI announced on January 12 that the autopsy yielded “bodily fluids,” later specified as urine. Ferdinand Lavin, NBI Deputy Director promptly told the media that the evidence indicated “May (There is a) crime. Let’s leave it at that.”
But Fortun also questioned the NBI findings, since the first medico-legal report by the PNP said Dacera’s bladder was empty. She raised concerns about the procedure used to extract the sample and its reliability, since Dacera’s body had been injected with embalming fluid.
After two weeks of coverage, the PNP and the NBI seemed determined to hold on to their contradictory findings. The police may have been eager to play up a case that featured good-looking professionals who had the means to party in a luxury hotel on New Year’s Eve, and then claim success for its quick resolution.
But the haste of it all revealed a shameful lack of dedication to duty and a scandalous disrespect for the demands of their profession. For all the media attention, the coverage failed to get at the truth of the Dacera case. Journalists failed to call the police to account for their handling of the investigation by merely reporting their claims without question. This is a case when the media must share the blame. But so far, they have not owned up to their mistakes.